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Homeland Security Funds Advanced Cyber-Security Projects

With a shrinking budget, the Advanced Research Projects Agency's cyber-security arm has to leverage internal expertise with that of academia and industry to get research done and have products commercialized.

All last week, scores of American border agents were furiously typing Blackberry messages to their Canadian counterparts. They weren't sharing hockey scores. The 40 agents were taking part in a secure-messaging project, just one of many technology projects coming out of the Homeland Security Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency's cyber-security arm.

Right now, the Department of Homeland Security doesn't even allow laptops to have wireless access when employees travel. But the agency, a colleague of the Internet-inventing Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is planning for implementation of secure hand-held devices with text, audio and video. With spam prevention.

At ARPA, cyber-security doesn't just mean fighting off pesky viruses. Instead, the group focuses on more the larger threats of terrorism, organized crime and economic espionage. Other ARPA projects in the works include:

-- a Web-based tool for network administrators to perform self-assessments of their systems' cyber security.

-- a tool that automatically tracks down and eliminates bots and bot networks.

-- a secure repository of information that would give researchers and affected companies attack traffic data including packet traces, attack topology, intrusion detection, and firewall log data within a week of a large scale attack.

-- an overhaul of the domain name system to integrate security against certain types of attacks into the infrastructure of the Internet. Sweden is already implementing these specifications.

-- more secure protocols for the Internet's routing infrastructure. Partners like Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks are working on these, but vendors can't agree on solutions and ISPs don't yet have customers clamoring for them.

The agency's work is limited by a paltry $16.7 million budget for 2006, down from $18 million this year. Still, its cyber-security group leverages internal expertise with that of academia and industry to get research done and have products commercialized and implemented as quickly as possible. Agency-wide cuts have forced a transition from pure research to more applied research.

"We're very focused on working with venture capitalists and commercial interests to make sure implementation happens," says Douglas Maughan, the cyber-security group's program director. He says some of the projects, like the domain name system overhaul, are ready to go live. "We've got some clothes on the emperor and it's definitely time to put him out into the street."

One of the agency's newest big concerns is thin clients. The government has plans in the works for widespread deployments, and the National Security Agency, along with a private partner, has recently developed a relatively secure Linux-based thin client called NetTop2. However, attackers have already found ways to circumvent the operating system and gain access to servers, so more advanced security measures are needed.

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